The Educated Equestrian
- May 1, 2001
How can you become a better, more informed rider, owner, breeder, manager, groom, conformation judge, health spotter, tack fitter, and just all-around horse person? By allowing yourself the time to learn. Many horse owners take lessons from professionals in order to become better at the riding disciplines they enjoy. There also are instructors or professionals available who can teach you about many other areas of horse health, care, and management--you just have to learn to find them and take advantage of their expertise.
Like any other job, handling horses requires skill, knowledge, and the right attitude. Improving skills, expanding your knowledge, and growing your competence with horses drive your equine education. The well-rounded education blends all three components. Barn or riding skills aren't enough; "book learning" can't substitute for real-life experience; a rough attitude with horses can undo all the good your skill and knowledge create.
Most people accumulate information from diverse sources. When you take advantage of opportunities, you can acquire a broad education. As examples, some successful equestrians share how they set their sights on learning skills, knowledge, and attitude.
For Fun Or Funds?
Pleasure or finances attract people to horses. You can learn about horses for the fun they supply, or target yourself for an equine industry career. The more knowledge you accumulate, the more you will be in demand as a worker or the better able you will be to care for your own horse(s).
Learning opportunities abound, and there's no one "best" way to learn. Think about why you seek education and what you need to learn, then find education that meets your needs.
You might pick a specific long-term goal, such as working for an industry association, running your own breeding farm, or competing at prestigious events. Whatever your desire, try to absorb valuable, accurate information that applies to that goal.
Diane Solomon, Director of the Equine Science Program at Scottsdale Community College in Arizona, remarked on the diversity of learning in the horse industry. "Students have the opportunity in Scottsdale to attend large breed shows, go through the marketplaces, and see the job potentials out there. They didn't realize you could be a judge, photographer, lawyer, or anything you want in the industry if you combine equine science with another degree."
A few attitude guidelines will help you start off on the right foot:
Open your mind. Curiosity helps you learn through instruction and observation, and prompts you to ask questions.
Ask questions. An inquisitive approach helps you fill in the blanks in your own equine education, and helps reinforce the knowledge that you are gaining.
Stay humble. Remember, no one knows everything. You can be proud of what you learn without acting like a know-it-all. Even Olympic champions have riding instructors, and world-famous veterinarians attend lectures at professional conferences.
Your Learning Style
How you learn and who you are affect your equine education. Think about the way you learn. In general, your preferred learning style is one of three types: kinesthetic, visual, or auditory. You should first learn to discipline yourself and take advantage of all types of educational opportunities, even if you have a hard time sitting still and paying attention in a lecture.
Match your learning style to learning opportunities. If you thrive on the hands-on approach, where you try out a concept under the guidance of an expert, you're a kinesthetic learner. You'll be itching to be with horses and equipment and perform new actions.
If you are a visual learner, you acquire information through seeing others perform a task or reading about it. Watching a good rider, you study posture and movement so you can imitate them. You probably learn better than some of your peers through reading or studying images.
Do you recall information better by hearing an explanation? Maybe you need to listen to an expert tell you what to do. If you receive and process new information best through hearing, you're an auditory learner.
Knowing your style helps you evaluate educational opportunities. In researching The Horse Source (which you receive each May, free with your subscription), you'll see several pages listing learning programs. You can also find learning opportunities on our online events calendar at http://www.thehorse.com/Events/Default.aspx.
Types Of Education
Educational opportunities fall into two types: formal programs and hands-on learning. Usually associated with an institution, a formal program follows the academic structure of lectures, handouts, homework, and tests. In hands-on learning, you practice techniques to retain what you learn. An arrangement where you learn from a mentor, possibly in exchange for your labor, might not follow a sequence of planned events. You learn from the experiences at hand.
You might choose to embark on self-learning by observing others, reading, and practicing on your own. Tina Trenner, a Nevada breeder of world champion Quarter Horses, learned bloodlines through reading. "I studied Nelson Nye's book (Outstanding Modern Quarter Horse Sires, 1948) when I was young. It had all the pictures of the old-time horses. Because of that book, I know the lines."
She adds that reading horse magazines helped her follow trends in horse breeding. "I watched the progression of families, and saw which ones bred on and which ones went away."
Your present lifestyle also influences what you'll learn. Consider your age, geographic location, responsibilities, and finances. You can start learning at any age, and curb or enhance your equestrian education efforts as circumstances change.
The U.S. Pony Club, 4-H, and American Quarter Horse Youth Association are just a few of the groups that offer low-cost educational opportunities to young horse enthusiasts. Horse judging teams teach critical thinking skills that prepare students through college age.
Jodi Zeier coaches judging teams in Colorado for 4-H and Arabian competitions. In a 20-week program, she gives lessons on conformation, breed types, and show performance classes. Students learn self-confidence by learning how to organize their notes and present reasons for placement.
Of the actual competitions, Zeier says, "It's tedious and demanding. It certainly builds more knowledge, ability, and character than anything else I've been involved with." She added that many who participate in judging teams go on to careers in the horse industry.
Age is not a factor in learning. An example of an older student is Ron Johnson of Utah, who attended a breeding management school at the age of 62. To renew his knowledge after a 20-year break from the breeding industry, he studied artificial insemination techniques for stallions, and mare management.
Your goals might dictate how you spend your time and money toward learning. Decide if you can relocate to pursue a specific program.
One such serious student was Michelle Gibson, who gained fame on the 1996 Olympic team. At 16 she was invited to be a working student with dressage trainer Michael Poulin. Moving to Germany, she met the Olympic coach Willi Schultheis, then worked for Rudolf Zeilinger for five years. Her apprenticeship there required 10-hour days, six days a week, of barn work and training horses. It definitely paid off.
How do you match learning situations to your needs? At the secondary education level, you can choose among many programs. Equine science curricula offer four-year or two-year courses of study toward a bachelor's or associate's degree. Graduate programs train toward advanced degrees in veterinary science or other aspects of the equine industry.
A graduate of the University of California, Davis, Laurie Campoy breeds sport horses. While an undergraduate at Davis, she participated in the stallion management program, which is a one-year internship.
"I wanted formal knowledge in addition to the practical knowledge I'd picked up through the years," she says. "We had to participate at least 15 hours a week, in addition to classes. We did every aspect of stud farm management, from basic care, to nutrition, to collecting the stallion, AI, ultrasound, diagnostic procedures, shipping, even embryo flushing."
Colleges might offer programs in specialties such as farrier science or racetrack management. For example, the Mesa Technical College in Tucumcari, N.M., has a two-year farrier science program that awards an associate applied science degree.
However, you don't need to attend college for a formal equestrian education. The British Horse Society (BHS) administers a system of certificates for those working with horses. Examinations test the qualifications of riding instructors, who may earn the BHS Assistant Instructor (BHSAI) or Instructor (BHSI) certificate. Manuals of equitation and stable management are essential reading for students. The BHS now offers the BHSAI certification in the Unites States.
BHS-certified instructors have taught in North America for decades. Famed horsewoman Linda Tellington-Jones learned riding from a BHS instructor, and also attended a Pony Club instructor's camp.
Colorado dressage instructor Nancy Ches-ney graduated from a similar program, a nine-month horsemaster's course taught by British instructor Mary Rose. She recalled that Rose, who had earned the prestigious BHS Fellowship, was quite demanding: "She taught you how tough it is in the horse business."
Rose's students rode school horses in group lessons. Chesney says, "We had official 'rides,' leading file, the whole ride halt, keep one horse's length. It was a great way to learn because you really had to control your horse."
Meredith Manor in Waverly, W.Va., has been instructing riders and trainers for 30 years. Solomon, a 1975 graduate, says, "It was one of the best and toughest educational experiences I ever had. I was in my late 20s when I went there, and wasn't as young as most of the ones coming out of high school. They gave you a real dose of the horse world, early morning through dinner. It was every aspect from barn management, training, riding, disease--in nine months they gave you everything you'd need to get a front line job in the horse industry."
France requires instructors to go through a course of study through the French Riding School, part of its Ministry of Youth and Sport. Germany's National Equestrian Federation awards the Reitlehrer (Riding Instructor) degree and a master's degree, the Pferdewirt-schaftmeister.
For those who focus on specific knowledge; university short courses, seminars, and clinics extend learning beyond full-time academics. The U.S. Dressage Federation (USDF) gives credits for those attending its USDF University. USDF also certifies instructors and prepares dressage judges for licensing with the American Horse Shows Association (AHSA). AHSA conducts regular clinics to keep licensed show officials up to date.
The American Quarter Horse Association trains judges and show managers. Farrier schools also offer certificate courses, as do schools in massage therapy. You can learn techniques of breeding in other short courses, at places like Colorado's Breeding Management School, where Carl Wood of Doubletree Horse Farms instructs through lectures and participation.
Johnson recalls that the AI course he attended was a four-day class with three or four hours of lecture in the morning and hands-on work in the afternoons.
Aside from structured university and certificate programs, wise horsemen can also be excellent teachers. Trenner recalled, "Work-ing cowboys taught me the basics of what a really good horse was. They taught me conformation--what works and what doesn't. That was my foundation."
Most U.S. Olympic riders also learn from mentors rather than formal education. Riders and trainers follow a system perpetuated by masters and their students.
In Germany, dressage was passed from the master of the early 20th Century--Otto Lorke--to Willi Schultheis and Rudolf Zeilinger. U.S. rider Major Robert Borg worked with Lorke preparing for the 1948 Olympics. Riding German-trained horses, that U.S. team won the nation's only silver medal in dressage. Zeilinger's student Michelle Gibson now teaches this system in the United States.
USET rider and coach Michael Page spent two years at the French Riding School in Saumur. A com-petitor in three Olympic Games, Page trained under French Olympic medalist Jack le Goff at Saumur and names him as a mentor. Another USET veteran, Mike Huber, also cites le Goff's impact. Huber was a resident rider training with le Goff, the USET eventing coach for several Olympic teams. "I don't think there's a day that goes by that I don't think about Jack and the influence he had on me," Huber says.
The United States has its own legacy of horsemanship in the Cavalry system. Cavalry training has continued in this country due to teachers such as Gordon Wright and his student George Morris. In the 1960s, the Pacific Coast School of Horsemanship incorporated Wentworth Tellington's Cavalry training. This nine-month instructors' pro-gram was the first of its kind for adults in the United States.
When following the teachings of a classical riding system, expect to dedicate yourself to that system for years. In 1992, Gibson said, "The 2 1/2 years I have been here have just been a beginning. I'm starting to understand more about riding itself, that the more you learn the more there is to learn." Four years later she was aiming to represent her country at the Atlanta Olympics.
Return On Your Learning Investment
Even if education matches your goals and learning style, rate the value of opportunities that arise. You'll spend time and money learning, so invest in the programs most valuable to you.
"Educating yourself is the smartest thing you can do," says Trenner. "It is too expensive to make mistakes. You have to wait a long time to find out that you've made a mistake when you raise horses."
Chesney commented on education as a long-term investment in a career: "Put your money into your education and your exposure. Do that for two years, and you build your reputation. People start to notice you, and see that you do improve."
The cost of continuing education is widely variable depending on the program you choose. For example, the John Lyons certification program runs 12 weeks and costs $18,000. Three weeks in Pat Parelli's program run from $4,800 to $6,450, varying across different levels in a progression. A 10-week course in equine myotherapy (a type of physical therapy) is $4,500.
Costs at a four-year college can run more than $22,000 a year for private programs, or $10,000 for public programs. Community and technical colleges are much less expensive. To earn the 67 credits required for the Mesa Technical College two-year farrier science degree, you'd spend $26 per credit hour.
You can also build your education through lessons and clinics. Riding in a clinic with a top trainer can run an average of $100 a day. Auditing the clinic can be just as valuable, and costs less than half as much.
Cost is not the only consideration in choosing a program, however. You should research education just like you do any other product or service. Review credentials of instructors, looking at their accomplishments and ability to communicate. (A great horseman might not instruct effectively.)
Find out if the instructor is accredited to teach, with a certificate from an organization such as the BHS, American Riding Instructors Association, or American Association for Horsemanship Safety. Instructors in farrier topics should be listed in the Registry of Professional Farrier Educators; therapeutic riding instructors complete a course approved by the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association.
Look for references from previous students. Study details of a published course schedule, either in a brochure, catalogue, or web site. Do you see objectives described so you can predict the knowledge you will gain from these sessions?
Attend a session as a trial. Observe the instructor's ability to communicate ideas to students. Do you understand the lesson? When the instructor handles horses, do you see humane, safe actions?
Whatever information you encounter in your education, realize that learning isn't a one-time event. As a rider or trainer, keep a journal so that you remember each day's successes and setbacks. Filter new ideas for accuracy, especially those that conflict with your skills and knowledge. Sometimes you'll even find yourself "unlearning" a concept or approach.
With a solid education, you develop self-confidence in your knowledge. Chesney recalled that Mary Rose taught her to: "Know your own mind, know what you want, and put in the hard work to do your program, no matter what everybody else does. You listen to the people who count, and don't listen to the people that don't know or never knew."
Learning about horses is a lifelong vocation. A jumper training legend, the late Jimmy Williams, shared his motto with his students: "It's what you learn after you know it all that counts." Smart equestrians realize the truth of his advice, as the wise horseman never stops learning.
Horses as Teachers
At any stage in your equestrian career, feedback from the horse tells you when you're right, or what you did wrong. You develop "feel," or the ability to recognize a response, evaluate what the horse communicated, and adjust your response through a plan of action. When you see an attentive horseman handling a horse, you observe a rapport. The close harmony between human and horse demonstrates perception of the horse's thought and movement.
Michael Page of the U.S. Equestrian Team cited "teaming with the horse" as the most important lesson he learned from French Olympic medalist Jack le Goff. "All the great horseman have a special feeling," he says. "It's a feeling of respect for what you are going to have the animal do with you."
Famed horsewoman Linda Tellington-Jones sees horses as mirrors of ourselves. "I feel that animals are here as teachers--when we approach them looking for ways of understanding, then change behavior with kindness rather than force."
About the Author
Award-winning writer Charlene Strickland lives in Bosque Farms, N.M. She has published 8 books and over 600 magazine articles, and is a member of the International Alliance of Equestrian Journalists.